Alden Nowlan Keath Fraser

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Keath Fraser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading the body of Alden Nowlan's work one begins to share his acute feeling for place. The ideal landscapes of Roberts and Carman, his literary ancestors, are the ones he avoids and de-mythologizes…. To get beneath a Maritime cliché the poet [at times] brandishes a prudery he recognizes and undercuts a countryside he does not…. As he views it, the Real McCoy resides not in any Platonic folder, the idea of landscape, but in the stab of the river above and below the ice, in winter and in summer. If Beauty exists it arises from a comprehension ubiquitous and therefore poetic, not a romanticized abstraction which excludes pain and coldness…. Individual poems hint that in this world where "Spring is distrusted", "Summer is not a season", and "December is thirteen months long", there can be no harking back to Tantramar for lost experience: any loss boils down simply to the absence of harshness, not to something that creates combustion in the mind. (p. 41)

Because he prides himself on writing of what he knows the threat of piecemeal living seems never distant from his regional world…. Nowlan chronicles himself and others via a milieu where the pain of his own experience contributes to much of his work…. (p. 42)

By and large … Nowlan, like the preacher in "The Young Rector"—fascinated with indigenous spirituality—cannot help but witness that the abject people he intuitively loves "are dead / all they need is someone / to throw dirt over them. / Passionless, stinking, dead." For this writer … both Eden and Tantramar are gone; only his struggle against asceticism and the nitty-gritty remains…. (p. 44)

While reviews of his early work praised Nowlan for the accuracy of his images, they also admonished him for flatness and failure to experiment much with form. A tendency not to whack home more forcefully a poem's potential also came under fire; what his poems of the early sixties needed more of was the expansive yet integral conclusions of his later ones, which exhibit an adroit control. In Under the Ice (1961) …, one discovers him finding his range, adjusting his sights, but shooting erratically nonetheless; even some previous poems are decidedly better than the ones which now describe his middle period. "The Egotist" from The Rose and the Puritan (1958), for example, explores a favourite theme of violence with more sophistication than the later "Bear". The earlier poem clinches its simple but electric statement superbly…. "Bear", on the other hand, lacks as much voltage because its conclusion is bathetic…. (pp. 44-5)

In Under the Ice Nowlan reveals limitations, not because a number of titles read like a rural Who's Who ("Jack Stringer", "Charlie", "Georgie and Fenwick", or "The Flynch Cows"), but because the poems themselves often forfeit neat contours of structure and perception (a notable exception is "Warren Pryor"). Verse like "Georgie and Fenwick", for instance, assembles tattle that makes better fiction. Nowlan realizes his use of local folk in the short story "The Execution of Clemmie Lake' much more effectively…. And in Bread, Wine and Salt (1967) his use of gossip proves more consequential. "Small Town Small Talk", by its title, foreshadows a measure of irony which articulates in a few lines the isolation of two people, so the dreary procession of busybody verse as in Under the Ice vanishes…. With Bread, Wine and Salt Nowlan commands a hearing with such poems as "Sailors", "O", "Footsteps in the Dark", and "The Fresh-Ploughed Hill" where, instead of petering out, his images accelerate sufficiently to spurt past the banal and overtake the significant. (pp. 45-6)

In the preface to The Things Which Are (1962) Nowlan reminds himself to "Write the things which thou hast seen and the things which are" (The Revelation of St. John the Divine). Consequently one perceives in a good deal of his writing the importance he attaches to a theme like coming of age…. Coming of age crops up in short stories like "Hurt", "A Sick Call", "In the Finland Woods" (all from Miracle at Indian River, 1968), and reappears trenchantly in the later poem, "The Wickedness of Peter Shannon."… (pp. 46-7)

The inside-outside motif … [also] carries through Nowlan's poetry of the past decade, and receives an obvious statement in his first volume … with such poems as "Sparrow Come in My Window", where the outside which invites escape remains cut off by a window that isolates the narrator and the bird he wishes to share his loneliness within. This confining window image continues clear in later poems like "Warren Pryor", "Party at Bannon Brook", "Jane at Two", and in "Wasp."… The nature of glass makes it difficult to distinguish what is real, a difficulty observable in the second paragraph of "The Foreigner", a short story set in an asylum and indicating Nowlan's interest in the insane…. What escapes the entrapped patients here … is a foothold in either the real world or the unreal…. Nowlan himself seeks familiarity with both worlds to understand better the real one, but its price exacts the shut-in seclusion required to create art. (pp. 47-8)

The inside may afford temporary relief, but inevitably this solace confirms loneliness…. Nowlan's regional sphere squats as an inherently unbalanced one where winter "that we share, / shut out and young or shut away and old" ("New Brunswick") bespeaks an existence not only lonely but precarious. His artistic appeal for harmony attempts to re-unite God and devil ("The Drunken Poet"); it proposes an inexorable search for the real world where security is not cramped but universal. Meanwhile this search, in the context of isolation, death, and redemption—the fundamental upshots of down-to-earth living—presupposes certain ironies.

Viewing a world close to the earth, as "Comparison" does, exposes its grotesqueness and judges its humanism with images that are violent…. For Nowlan there are two ironies: (1) an ironic violence as displayed in this poem …; as well as (2) an ironic humour which undercuts situations not violent themselves but still hostile to our credibility…. [Nowlan's] extension of regional boundaries creates a sort of pop mythology which still permits humour the irony of local colour…. Saving grace for his characters, apparently, leads often to the author's tongue-in-pen engagement with their eccentricities. Ironic overtones thus provide an individual like Francis who laughs insanely and wears winter clothes in the hot July sun ("Francis"), with a simple logic—"what keeps out the cold, she'll keep out the heat"—evidently required of those who would redeem sanity and reality from climatic extremes of their local microcosm.

Dedicated honestly and humbly to his art, equally at home in more than one genre, Alden Nowlan furnishes an unhip, thoroughly non-academic world with splashes of exquisite insight…. [He] has taught himself the archetypal image…. If I have emphasized his poetry at the expense of his short stories it is because themes attendant to both are illustrated more felicitously by the poems. Yet as a fiction stylist he discloses an equivalent delicacy and intuition, apparent upon a reading, say, of "Annointed with Oils" or "The Girl Who Went to Mexico."… [His] work reveals relentless growth, while his regional qualities continue to endure. (pp. 49-51)

Keath Fraser, "Notes on Alden Nowlan" (revised by the author for this publication), in Canadian Literature, No. 45, Summer, 1970, pp. 41-51.